The ultimate improv

Tuesday April 2, 2013

A friend is dying. I truly believed -- was so certain -- that she'd managed to whip her cancer that I felt utterly ambushed by the news that it had returned for another grueling contest. And I was wholly unprepared for her decision not to fight this round. So this is where we are; a friend is dying.

I have held her spirit so close to me these past few days, and a precious cache of images has opened up to me.

Each fall we plant a riot of tulips in our front bed. We made a decision years ago that the rather expensive gesture gave back so much to us, to our neighbors, and to passersby, that the investment was absolutely worth it. As I anticipate the sturdy and insistent flowers bursting through the soil and declaring, "Ha! We're here!" I think of my friend, skidding to a halt in front of our house, leaning out the window and yelling, "Love those tulips!" She more than appreciates our tulips; she relishes them. I will savor their lush splendor in a new way this season because she has -- through her simple unabashed pleasure -- invited me to do so.

My kids have spent hundreds -- perhaps thousands? -- of hours becoming one with their sandbox. Spring, summer and fall have meant one thing for years: The sand will inexorably find its way into every nether nook and distant cranny of our home. One of the first phrases my son learned and robustly repeated was one he heard so often from us, "Oh, man! Sand!" Whenever I've doubted the wisdom of inviting the unrelenting Sahara into our home ad infinitum, my friend has been there to insist that kids must be outside. Period. Her no-nonsense speaking style leaves little room for argument. I find this such a comfort; we all want to feel that we've made sound parenting decisions.

In hundreds of bits of conversation over the years, she has simply and exquisitely appreciated my parenting. She notices when I strap my kids into backpacks or strollers, unfailingly valuing the beauty in the humble act of getting my children out in the open air. So often my mornings have been filled with her indisputable and fervent words: "It's going to be a beautiful day! You've got to get those kids out!" I hold her broad and adamant smile in my mind's eye as I embark on the daunting struggle with toddlers, shoes, coats, hats, mittens. Got to get those kids out. I am profoundly grateful for her resolute articulation of this imperative.

We have spent snatches of many early mornings talking local politics, discussing lines from my column, and sharing parenting stories. Several weeks ago, she shared this chestnut with me. When her daughter was very young, they were out shopping together, and her daughter noticed a haggard mom pushing a shopping cart brimming with children of all ages and sizes. Her daughter turned to her and said, "Mom, these Vermonters just keep having babies until they get a good one, huh?" This story -- which made me howl with laughter -- now holds special meaning to me; the young girl is now a grown woman who will soon watch her mother let go and fall into the waiting arms of a loving universe.

What I've been considering -- as I swim in the shock and sorrow -- is that love is the ultimate improvisation. Like a jazz pianist who tickles out a melody and waits for the response from the rest of the trio, we throw out riffs and phrases to seek connection with others. We noodle and jam throughout our days and hope to find a groove that sticks. Whether it's screaming, soul-aching love; unfathomable and fierce love for a child; or tender friendships that build slowly over time, we all make it up as we go along. The improvisation is sometimes buoyant and brilliant but just as likely to be clunky and challenging. But we play it, nonetheless, endlessly seeking connection and meaning -- fervently wishing to be seen, heard, and, ultimately, remembered.

The devastating news about my friend's cancer coincided with my rediscovery of legendary jazz pianist Bill Evans. His dazzling recordings at the Village Vanguard have played non-stop in my kitchen for weeks, as I furtively grab snatches of culture between distinctly underwhelming chores. Evans once said, "Each day becomes all of life in microcosm." Although he was referring to the cycle of death and transfiguration that he experienced through his drug addiction, he was on to something much deeper. Whether it is creating unforgettable music or building love one conversation at a time, today is all of life. Our daily experiences create our memory and our memory, in turn, forges our identity.

In their 2001 book, "A General Theory of Love," Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon -- professors of psychiatry at University of California San Francisco -- proclaim: "Memory is a small word that contains whole worlds." With little effort, we recall places and people long since gone because their impressions remain embedded along synaptic paths. They explain, "Memory lies at the heart of who we are and who we become. A scientific theory of memory is therefore a map of the soul."

Our memories, then, give us inexhaustible access to all the past improvisation we've created with dear ones -- when we composed our love one brave note at a time. And they affirm that our lives are unquestionably richer for all the phrases and refrains we've played together.

My friend, thank you. I cherish our improvs with profound reverence. You will be remembered.

Rebecca Balint writes about history, education and culture. She welcomes your comments at Read her blog at


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